Brazil's Indigenous Leaders Sue President Jair Bolsonaro For Crimes Against Humanity

A complaint at the International Criminal Court alleges the Brazilian president has violated human rights law by targeting tribes and the Amazon rainforest.

Two of Brazil’s most influential and well-known Indigenous leaders filed an international legal challenge this week against the country’s leader, alleging that far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s policies toward Indigenous tribes and the Amazon rainforest constitute crimes against humanity.

Chief Raoni Metuktire, the leader of the Kayapo people, and Chief Almir Narayamoga Surui, leader of the Paiter Surui tribe, filed the claim at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Friday.

The suit points to rising levels of deforestation in the Amazon, increased killings of Brazilian Indigenous leaders, and the Bolsonaro government’s efforts to strip protections from the rainforest and tribal lands, policies the Indigenous leaders say aim to “exploit the natural resources of the Amazon and undermine the rights of indigenous peoples in order to promote industry.”

Rates of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon were already increasing when Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, but they have skyrocketed on his watch, and record outbreaks of fires in the region over the last two years have drawn global attention to Bolsonaro’s efforts to roll back environmental protections and overhaul Brazil’s environmental regulatory agencies. More than 2.7 million acres of the Amazon were cleared in 2020, according to Brazilian government data, the highest total in 12 years.

“Ecocide at this level of intensity has to be considered as a crime against humanity.”

- William Bourdon, attorney for Chiefs Raoni and Almir

A longtime human rights and environmental activist, Chief Raoni has emerged as a leader of Indigenous resistance to Bolsonaro, who tribal leaders have warned threatens their people with genocide. Raoni, who at 89 years old tested positive for COVID-19 in August (months after Indigenous leaders argued that the Bolsonaro government’s lagging response to the pandemic left them especially vulnerable), said last year that Bolsonaro was the worst president of the 24 Brazilian leaders who have served during his lifetime.

The lawsuit does not guarantee an investigation into Bolsonaro but requests that the court’s prosecutors launch a probe into its claims. It will likely take weeks before the court makes a decision on whether an investigation is warranted.

If the ICC follows through, the complaint against Bolsonaro could have an impact far beyond Brazil: The lawyers behind the case say it could push widespread environmental destruction ― or ecocide ― onto the list of crimes the ICC recognizes as prosecutable under international law.

William Bourdon, the French lawyer who filed the lawsuit on Chief Raoni’s behalf, pointed to a long-held belief among some international legal experts that environmental destruction should be considered a crime against humanity, an argument that has intensified as the global fight against climate change becomes even more urgent. (The ICC’s founding charter initially included ecocide as a crime, but it was later removed.)

“Ecocide at this level of intensity has to be considered as a crime against humanity,” Bourdon told HuffPost.

Even if the ICC doesn’t accept that argument, the complaint asserts that Bolsonaro’s actions toward Brazil’s Indigenous tribes and the laws meant to protect them qualify as crimes against humanity.

Chief Raoni Metuktire, center front, takes part in a climate march in Brussels on May 17, 2019. The activist has become a symbol of the fight for Indigenous rights and preservation of the Amazon rainforest.
Chief Raoni Metuktire, center front, takes part in a climate march in Brussels on May 17, 2019. The activist has become a symbol of the fight for Indigenous rights and preservation of the Amazon rainforest.
AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File

During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro advocated for stripping protections for Indigenous lands, guaranteed in the country’s constitution, to open the Amazon and tribal reserves up to agribusiness, mining and other industrial interests. As president, he has followed through on that promise, removing oversight of Indigenous lands from FUNAI, Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency, and placing it under the Ministry of Agriculture.

Indigenous leaders have argued that these relaxed protections have led to dramatic spikes in raids on tribal lands and increases in attacks on Indigenous peoples. The killing of Indigenous leaders rose to the highest level in more than a decade in 2019, the lawsuit filed this week asserts. The same year, invasions of Indigenous lands increased 135%, according to Brazil’s Indigenous Missionary Council. Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency, meanwhile, issued its least amount of fines in two decades in 2019, even as deforestation surged.

The suit also asserts that the fires and Bolsonaro’s refusal to demarcate new Indigenous territories has forced people to leave their tribal lands and accuses the Brazilian president of persecuting environmental activists and NGOs, scientists and Indigenous peoples.

Bolsonaro has faced constant opposition from Indigenous leaders throughout his presidency. In 2019, tribal activists traveled to New York to protest Bolsonaro’s policies at the United Nations General Assembly, which took place amid the outbreak of fires that engulfed the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous leaders have also fought to block Bolsonaro’s policies and some of his appointees to key agencies that oversee tribal affairs.

Last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hammer the country, tribes attempted to stop the appointment of a former Christian missionary to head the agency that deals with isolated and uncontacted Amazon tribes ― an extension of an ongoing fight to keep missionaries from contacting isolated peoples who have little or no known contact with the outside world.

Bolsonaro has continued his efforts to undermine environmental and Indigenous protections throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and in late April, Brazilian Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles suggested that the right-wing government should use the pandemic as cover to “to simplify regulation on a large scale” and “run the cattle herd” through the Amazon.

The number of wildfires surged again in 2020, but the Bolsonaro government’s 2021 budget proposal cuts funding for environmental protection and fire prevention by 27%, the São Paulo-based Observatório do Clima, a coalition of Brazilian civil society groups, said in a report released Friday. The government’s budget seeks to set funding for Brazil’s environmental ministry at its lowest overall level in more than two decades, the report said.

“The report shows that, in the last two years, the environmental and climate agenda in Brazil has suffered unimaginable setbacks on a frightening scale,” said Marcio Astrini, Observatório do Clima’s executive director, in a release that accompanied the report. “Bolsonaro adopted the destruction of the environment as a policy ... he is directly responsible for the increase in fires, deforestation and national emissions.”

“The situation is dramatic,” Astrini said, “because the federal government, which is the one entity that could work out solutions for this scenario, is now the main generator of problems.”

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